Thirteen of the 15 games this week have playoff implications. I
could handicap every one of them for you, but let's be sporting
about this. How could I keep a straight face and pad the record
with puppies? Flash! Dr. Z picks Dallas over New Orleans, Indy
Sure, this is the year of upsets, and who would have figured on
Philadelphia and Chicago knocking off playoff contenders New
England and Detroit, respectively, and convincingly, too? But
let's keep this in perspective. We'll start with the more
gripping games and see where that leads.
Jacksonville (13-1) at Tennessee (11-3) looked good on paper a
few weeks ago, and the records certainly are fancy, but both
teams have already clinched postseason spots, and now they're
competing for playoff position. Coaches stress the importance of
playing for home-field advantage in the playoffs, but that's
never as powerful a motivating force as the old urgency formula:
If you win it, you're in it. The Titans would love to beat the
Jaguars a second time, but Tennessee's not stupid. The Titans
know a division title is a long shot, hinging on Cincinnati's
knocking off the Jaguars in Jacksonville on Jan. 2. So a little
of the edge is off this one. For the Jaguars, who now have the
swift legs of Fred Taylor to carry them, it's a revenge kind of
thing. Call it a Jacksonville victory in a low-scoring affair.
Kansas City (9-5) at Seattle (8-6) is my favorite game on the
schedule. The Seahawks are reeling after four straight defeats.
But if they beat the Chiefs, they'll have a leg up on the
division title because of their sweep of K.C. The Chiefs play
far worse on the road than they do in that Arrowhead madhouse.
Look what happened to the poor Steelers last Saturday. They came
with a neat little game plan and moved the ball smartly, but
after they fell behind and the crowd noise kicked in and the
false-start penalties (six of them, plus one delay of game)
started mounting, catch-up was almost impossible. The Chiefs can
proudly point to the 30 false starts and six delays that
opponents have been flagged for in their house, and it was
inspiring to see coach Gunther Cunningham on the sideline last
Saturday, exhorting the crowd to keep up the volume.
Surprisingly enough, the Chiefs have fared pretty well in the
Kingdome, winning three in a row before losing last year. Denver
hammered what looks like a worn-down Seattle defense for 260
yards on the ground, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out
that K.C. will try to do the same. So why do I like the
Seahawks? Call it a hunch.
The Buccaneers are also bleeding after the Raiders whipped them
45-0 on Sunday. Shaun King came down off the clouds, but the
biggest embarrassment was the defense, so expect it to be stoked
for Green Bay at home. Yes, I like the Bucs.
The Jets, who are going nowhere, will pull off a road upset over
playoff hopeful Miami. The Dolphins seem to be tiring. Plus,
they can't run the ball. Washington's league-leading rusher,
Stephen Davis, is out with a sprained left ankle, which means
Brad Johnson will throw for close to 400 yards in a Redskins win
in San Francisco.
The Lions stay in the thick of the NFC Central race with a win
over the Broncos. The Cardinals have enough defense to get by
the Falcons in Atlanta, but the Vikings, hoping for easy
pickings in New York, will get upset by the Giants. The Patriots
have beaten Buffalo four straight times in Foxboro, but they
won't make it five. The Bills win it on the ground. The
Panthers, with the NFL's hottest quarterback in Steve Beuerlein,
run up the score on the Steelers, and the Raiders, a team given
to breathtaking highs and lows, struggle but squeeze one out in
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO A healthy Taylor will help carry the Jaguars over the Titans.